Emmanuel Macron is seeking to increase France’s economic clout within the EU by securing top jobs for his compatriots, as the officials who steered the eurozone through the financial crisis depart the scene.
Paris has put down markers for two key jobs co-ordinating the eurogroup of finance ministers while campaigning for the creation of a post of eurozone finance minister — all part of Mr Macron’s push to reassert France’s economic policymaking role after years of subservience to Germany.
His government has let it be known that it might seek to install Bruno Le Maire, finance minister, as head of the eurogroup to replace Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch Labour politician who is leaving the post after his party was battered in March elections.
France has also made clear its desire to head another body, known as the eurogroup working group, which prepares the ministers’ meetings. While Paris cannot hope to land that job and the eurogroup presidency at the same time, it is broadcasting its interest in both in the hope of securing one of them.
But success for Mr Macron’s lobbying drive is far from guaranteed, with the eurozone divided between German-led countries that stress the need for fiscal discipline, and more southern states, notably France, that want greater sharing of risks.
“This personnel battle is a proxy for the policy battle to come,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, director of studies at the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels. “The German-Dutch-Finnish camp distrusts the other camp, but there’s even distrust within the camps.”
The two new eurozone appointments, which will have to be made by January, are part of a far broader process of renewal that will culminate in 2019 with the nomination of a President of the European Central Bank to replace Mario Draghi and a new European Commission to take office that year.
“There’s a sudden abundance of riches coming up, giving people various choices to make,” said a senior European diplomat.
Other important EU economic posts to be filled include those of Vítor Constâncio, the Portuguese vice-president of the ECB, who leaves in May and whose role Spain covets, and two other members of the ECB’s executive board — Benoît Cœuré of France, and Peter Praet of Belgium, the bank’s chief economist — who depart in 2019.
While Angela Merkel’s government would like Jens Weidmann, the president of the Bundesbank, to take over from Mr Draghi and become the first German chief of the ECB, some Berlin officials say he is unlikely to get the job, since he has been at odds with the bank over its landmark policy of quantitative easing.
Berlin is also distracted by the prospect of next month’s general election — a vacuum French officials seek to fill by lobbying in Brussels.
This personnel battle is a proxy for the policy battle to come. The German-Dutch-Finnish camp distrusts the other camp, but there’s even distrust within the campsJanis Emmanouilidis, European Policy Centre
Mr Macron’s efforts to put a French stamp on personnel come in advance of a widely anticipated joint initiative with Berlin to manage the eurozone economy, expected after the German election.
Despite longstanding differences between the two countries over the best way to spur economic growth, the French president, who has pledged to overhaul his country’s economy, sees scope for a grand bargain to drive forward eurozone reform.
His ideas include the creation of a eurozone finance minister with a dedicated budget. If such a ministry is created the potential candidates would include François Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the Banque de France.
Berlin has resisted such ideas to date and the gulf with Paris is still very wide. But Mr Macron’s freedom for manoeuvre could improve if next month’s elections lead to the departure of Germany’s Wolfgang Schäuble, the eurozone’s dominant and longest-serving finance minister.
But at present, France is focusing on more technical-level jobs, including the head of the eurozone working group, held by Thomas Wieser, a relatively little-known but influential Austrian.
The senior European diplomat said Paris was floating the idea of giving the post to Odile Renaud-Basso, a top official at the French finance ministry.
“There’s been a certain amount of scoping out by the French on this,” the diplomat said, adding that the country’s officials were “flexing their muscles a bit.”
Another diplomat said Ms Renaud-Basso had “very good chances” — although, some smaller eurozone countries have also discussed the potential candidacy of Tuomas Saarenheimo, the Finnish member of the working group.
The appointments to replace Mr Dijsselbloem and Mr Wieser will be decided respectively by eurozone finance ministers and members of the eurogroup working group — which is made up of senior finance ministry officials. That means Paris will have to win round a majority of the eurozone’s 19 countries to its cause.
“France is pushing but do they really deserve it? I don’t know,” said Karel Lannoo of the Centre for European Policy Studies, another Brussels think-tank. “They have not respected Maastricht [EU budget rules] for the last 10 years. They have to have more central and eastern countries in the machinery.” To date many other countries have reserved their position on the French jobs push.
A French effort to give Mr Le Maire the presidency of the eurogroup could also face significant objections, a third diplomat argued, noting that some member states believe that the post should be retained by a smaller country to help the holder play the role of honest broker in complex and sometimes fraught negotiations.
The finance ministers of Slovakia, Portugal, Luxembourg and Italy are also seen in Brussels as possible contenders to head the eurogroup.
In addition, Mr Le Maire, who defected only this year to Mr Macron’s centrist La République en marche movement, could be hindered by his past affiliation to the centre right, since the centre-left currently holds Mr Dijsselbloem’s job.
One official argued that Paris was under-represented in eurozone institutions. But a further complication for France is that Pierre Moscovici, a former French finance minister, holds the economics portfolio in the commission. Mr Moscovici has another two years in his post, so by the time of his departure the eurozone reshuffle will be well under way.
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and Claire Jones in Frankfurt